Books: Exercises in Style
Exercises in Style,
by Raymond Queneau
99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style,
by Matt Madden
These two books both belong firmly in the “Secret Books” category. Neither book has anything explicit to say about games and you’d probably be hard pressed to find anything immediately useful in either one, but they tend to appear on the bookshelves of game designers with surprising frequency.
Both books have the same project: to illustrate how the same basic story can be told in remarkable number of ways. Queneau’s book came first, telling a simple one page story in 99 different styles, with variations in narrator, tense, language, form, and many other aspects. So that the initial story:
In the S bus, in rush hour. A chap of about 26, felt hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long, as if someone’s been having a tug-of-war with it. People getting off. The chap in question gets annoyed with one of the men standing next to him. He accuses him of jostling him every time anyone goes past. A snivelling tone which is meant to be aggressive. When he sees a vacant seat he throws himself on to it.
Two hours later, I meet him in the Cour de Rome, in front of the gare Saint-Lazare. He’s with a friend who’s saying: “You ought to get an extra button put on your overcoat.” He shows him where (at the lapels) and why.
When midday strikes you will be on the rear platform of a bus which will be crammed full of passengers amongst whom you will notice a ridiculous juvenile; skeleton-like neck and no ribbon on his felt hat. He don’t be feeling at his ease, poor little chap. He will think that a gentleman is pushing him on purpose every time that people getting on or off pass by. He will tell him so but the gentleman won’t deign to answer. And the ridiculous juvenile will be panic-stricken and run away from him in the direction of a vacant seat.
You will see him a little later, in the Cour de Rome in front of the gare Saint-Lazare. A froend will be with him and you will hear these words: “Your overcoat doesn’t do up properly; you must have another button put on it.”
Glabrous was his dial and plaited was his bonnet,
And he, a puny colt — (how sad the neck he bore,
And long) — was now intent on his quotidian chore —
The bus arriving full, of somehow getting on it.
One came, a number ten — or else perhaps an S,
Its platform, small adjunct of the plebeian carriage,
Was crammed with such a mob as to preclude free passage;
Rich bastards lit cigars upon it, to impress.
The young igraffe described so well in my first strophe,
Having got on the bus, started at once to curse an
Innocent citizen — (he wanted an easy trophy
But got the worst of it.) Then, spying a vacant place,
Escaped thereto. Time passed. On the way back, a person
Was telling him that a button was just too low in space.
Matt Madden takes up this same game in 99 Ways, but his medium is the comic page rather than prose. Again he shows a simple single-page comic and then retells with many different techniques. Some of the variations can be seen on the website for the book.
What makes this book inspiring for game designers, I think, is that it encourages us to consider how we might do the same thing in our own medium. A game could represent the same activity in many different ways. Consider writing an “Exercises in Style” videogame in which each level played out the same situation, in first person, then third, then as an RTS, then as a turn-based strategy, then as a performative Wii game, a team-based multiplayer game, an arcade game, an ARG…
Even as a thought experiment, this exercise raises interesting questions. How would the different styles change the experience? What different skills would they challenge? Which ones would be more immersive? More reflective? More social? Do we even have 99 different styles of play?
One day, when I am retired and have copious free time, I will write this new edition of Exercises in Style. Until then, I read Queneau and Maddon and imagine. And I encourage you to do the same.